The meeting was held on neutral ground — a run-down burger place whose peeling paint revealed it had once been called "Pop's", but which now laid claim to the name "Mario's". Located three blocks east of either of their territories, just on the other side of Broadway, it was far from either gang's usual stomping grounds, and thus — both sides hoped — far from unwanted prying eyes.
By the simple terms worked out by the envoys the gangs had sent each other, the first representatives to arrive had not actually entered the shop. Instead they waited on the street corner for their counterparts. When they arrived, the two leaders entered the shop together — a deliberate move to ensure that neither side even appeared to be claiming it as "theirs".
Once the two had seated themselves at the decaying booth farthest from the door, the rest of the diplomatic parties streamed in, gathering around them. The presence of even a small fraction of the two gangs in his shop made sweat break out across the bare scalp of the balding, overweight proprietor, but he nodded and set to work taking the orders of the half-dozen or so young toughs.
That most of them were clearly not up to fighting did not reassure him. They might be bandaged, bruised and limping, but that didn't necessarily mean anything. Who knew with kids these days?
The only other customer in the place — a crewcut businessman wearing a cheap grey suit and accompanied by a worn briefcase — sat in a seat by the plate glass window and paid them no mind, apparently focusing his entire attention instead on the extraordinarily large and greasy hamburger on the plate before him. Under ordinary circumstances this might have made him a target for either gang's attentions, but these were far from ordinary circumstances.
As the proprietor bustled back to the small grill behind the counter, the two leaders stared at each other with unmitigated hatred.
"Bernardo," spat one.
"Riff," spat the other.
There was a long moment of silence in which the members of both parties tensed, anticipating what all had feared — that this meeting would become instead a battle. The Sharks and the Jets had been enemies for as long as both gangs had existed, endlessly contesting ownership of the same small collection of upper West Side streets. Until this day, they had only met to discuss the terms of their next rumble — airing grievances and selecting weaponry. This meeting was something new for both sides, and despite all the careful planning and the dancing around individual and group egos, no one was sure how this meeting would end.
Most expected bloodshed.
"We got a problem. We both got a problem," Bernardo, his right arm in a cast and sling, finally said. Both sides relaxed infinitesimally.
"Yeah," Riff replied thickly through the swelling of a split lip. He sat stiffly upright, giving away the tight wrapping supporting his ribs.
"So what do we do about it?"
"What can we do?" demanded one of the Jets who called himself Diesel. "This guy, he took us all down by himself."
"He can't be that tough," scoffed Bernardo's right-hand man, Pepe.
"Yeah, right. Word on the street is you guys got beat just as bad as us." Diesel looked Pepe up and down, taking in the splinted wrist and the bandage wrapped around his head like a bandanna. "Maybe worse."
Pepe clenched his fists and growled, and for a moment the entire group tensed in the expectation that violence would erupt.
"Can it!" Bernardo snapped. "Neutral ground, remember? We fight, we lose everything to the gringo stranger."
"So," slurred Riff through his split lip, "whatcha got to offer?"
Bernardo studied the Jets before him. "You couldn't take him. We couldn't take him. But we join the gangs, we're twice as strong. We could take him then." He scowled ferociously. "Beat him down for good."
"Yeah, and who'd be in charge?" demanded Diesel. "You?"
Bernardo shook his head. "No. Not me. Not Riff, either. Too much blood spilled. My boys wouldn't go for you leading, and your boys wouldn't go for me."
"You got that right," one of the Jets murmured from the back of the small group.
"I talked this out with my boys," Bernardo continued, ignoring the interruption. "They won't follow you, Riff. But for this, to catch and get rid of this gringo interloper..."
"Nice word," sniggered another Jet. "Go to school for that?"
"...for this, they've agreed to trust your man Tony."
A stunned silence fell upon the the Jets' side of the table, broken only by the chatter of the short order cook behind the counter. Riff and Diesel exchanged looks before the former turned back to Bernardo. "Tony's not in the Jets no more — he quit."
Bernardo nodded. "That's why we want him. He knows his way on the street, but he ain't in either gang now. And..." He paused, took a deep breath, and plunged forward. "And he's seein' my sister, Maria."
The table fell silent for a second time. On the Jets side, the reactions ranged from anger to thoughtfulness. Riff looked up at Bernardo and broke the silence. "So, he's got something on both sides, but he's not on either. I like it." A half-smile quirked the side of his damaged mouth. "Course, gettin' him to do it might be a job."
Bernardo laughed. "I'll get Maria to sweet-talk him into it. He can't say no to her."
Riff looked around at his side of the table. One by one, the other Jets nodded, some quickly, some slowly and doubtfully. He closed his eyes for a moment and thought, then opened them again with a nod. "Deal. Tony leads the combined gang." Then, as though the thought had just occurred to him, he added, "This is just until we beat the stranger. Once he's outta the picture, we're back to the way we was before."
With a smirk, Bernardo nodded. "Of course. We just want our turf back, like you. After that, if we rumble, we rumble."
"Right." Riff thrust out his hand. Bernardo took it, and they shook.
Their departure from Mario's afterwards was as formalized and carefully choreographed as their entrance. Allies they might be now, but the alliance was still newborn, and both sides were wary of treachery hidden in the friendly handshake. The conjoined group stalked silently down the street, each side watching the other until they reached the end of the block. There the Jets turned north and the Sharks south.
I took my time and finished my burger about ten minutes after the war council left the little greasy spoon. Leaving a fistful of ones on the table, I picked up the briefcase by my seat and strolled out onto the street. I walked briskly around the corner and into an alley to where my motorcycle was parked behind a dumpster.
Once out of sight of the street I tossed the briefcase — for which I'd paid a buck at a Goodwill on 70th Street and empty except for an old Sears catalog to give it weight — into the dumpster. I loosened my tie, pulled it off, and stuck it into a pocket. My fingerprint unlocked the bike's rear pannier, and from it I drew out my leather jacket and my helmet.
I couldn't help chuckling to myself as I pulled on the jacket and settled the helmet on my head. This was the most fun I'd had in years, playing both angel and devil to the teenagers in this neighborhood.
On the one hand I was shepherding Tony and Maria's romance along by secretly guarding their assignations and by clearing away obstacles — such as Chino, the husband Maria's family had chosen for her. I had arranged for him both to fall from grace in their eyes and to leave New York afterwards. (Never underestimate the combined power of a big carrot and an even bigger stick.) And in the guise of a respectable member of the community, I was busy (if subtly) selling Maria's family on Tony's prospects as a potential husband. (Not an easy task, that, with 1950s-vintage prejudices and all, but I was starting to make some headway with them.)
Meanwhile, I was completely rerouting the usual currents of conflict by giving the Sharks and the Jets a common foe. By singlehandedly beating both gangs and claiming their turf — and vigorously defending my claim when it was challenged — I made myself into a bigger threat to each than their "traditional" enemies. Naturally, I was careful to limit myself so as to appear to be "just barely" defeating each gang by itself. And today, right according to plan, the two gangs chose to unite in order to defeat me with much greater numbers.
I planned to keep "just barely" defeating them for at least a couple more months — more if they needed extra time to heal. That should be long enough for the ethnic tensions between the Italian and Puerto Rican gangs to start to fade in the light of association, and for friendships — or at least working acquaintances — to start to form. Hell, I might even encourage them with the occasional draw before I finally let myself be defeated — by Tony, of course, to vindicate the trust put in him. By that point, I hoped, the Sharks and the Jets would become one gang instead of two.
But even if the alliance fell apart afterwards, I would still have accomplished my number one goal — which was to escort Tony and Maria past the critical point in the plot of "West Side Story" where things fell apart and he ends up dead. Simply getting Chino out of town might have prevented that, by removing Tony's killer from the scene entirely. Addressing the bigger picture helped improve things for the long term, though.
And face it, getting to beat the crap out of a dozen or so punks on a bi-weekly basis was fun. They were even starting to learn a little from me, to boot.
My jacket clasps sealed and my helmet's chinstrap snapped tight, I climbed onto my cycle. I toggled the stealth mode on then spun up the turbine. I had one more errand to run before I could call it a night — I owed Sergeant Krupke a bottle of good whiskey for the tip he gave me about the war council.
I gunned the throttle, engaged the grav drive, and shot up into the sky.
Drunkard's Walk, Steplet:
West Side Loon
by Robert M. Schroeck
This work of fiction is copyright © 2009, by Robert M. Schroeck.
"West Side Story", and the settings and the characters thereof, are copyright by and trademarks of Arthur Laurents, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, their estates and/or their assignees, and are used without permission.
"Douglas Q. Sangnoir," "Looney Toons", "The Loon" and any representations thereof are copyright by and trademarks of Robert M. Schroeck.